Sweeping new efforts to bring Britain’s growing air pollution crisis under control were announced by the government Wednesday, including a ban on the sale of new diesel and gasoline vehicles beginning in 2040.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove said the changes are part of a $3.9-billion clean air strategy, adding there was no alternative to embracing new technology.
“We can’t carry on with diesel and petrol [gasoline] cars,” he said, “not just because of the health problems that they cause, but also because the emissions that they cause would mean that we would accelerate climate change, do damage to our planet and the next generation.”
The move was welcomed by environmental activists but criticized by many who said it does little to tackle pressing short-term air pollution problems.
It is a “welcome start,” Green Party leader Caroline Lucas said on Twitter, but added that an “urgent plan to cut air pollution now” was desperately needed, including the creation of clean air zones, better investment in public transport and a “scrappage” program to help people financially to replace their diesel vehicles.
The government strategy was published Wednesday, days before a July 31 high court deadline.
The courts had forced the government to produce new anti-pollution plans to tackle dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide after agreeing with environmental activists that a previous set of measures was insufficient to meet European Union limits.
There has been an increasing shift away from internal combustion engines and toward electric vehicles in recent months, with Volvo announcing that all of its new cars would be partly or fully battery-powered by 2019.
And this week, German carmaker BMW said an all-electric Mini would join the fleet of vehicles produced at its Oxford, England, plant in 2019.
Air pollution is estimated to account for up to 40,000 deaths in Britain each year.
It was described by a government spokesman as the biggest environmental risk to public health in the United Kingdom, but Wednesday’s announcement is by no means the most far-reaching or ambitious in Europe.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s government announced this month that it also would ban the sale of all diesel and gas cars by 2040.
And mayors in Paris, Madrid, Mexico City and Athens also have said they plan to ban diesel vehicles from their respective cities by 2025. In London, there are several days a year, usually during hot weather, when pollution reaches dangerous levels and advisories are issued for the sick or vulnerable to stay indoors while the wider public is urged to avoid strenuous outdoor activities.
A congestion charge has been in effect in London since 2003 to try to stem the flow of vehicles entering the capital during the week.
Cycle lanes also have been improved, a bike-share scheme was established and public transport fares were frozen in 2017 in an effort to get more people out of their cars and in environmentally friendly, sustainable modes of transportation.
Mayor Sadiq Khan also is looking to create an ultra-low emission zone in the center of the capital by April 2019 by charging $16 a day to any car that enters without meeting low emissions targets.
Despite the push toward electric cars, the government has been careful not to demonize drivers of gas and diesel vehicles, especially because previous governments encouraged motorists to buy diesel fuel.
Industry leaders also have warned about the risks these changes could pose to the economy, a warning that will not be taken lightly as Britain severs its decades-old partnership with the European Union and seeks new trade agreements around the world.
“Currently, demand for alternatively fueled vehicles is growing but still at a very low level as consumers have concerns over affordability, range and charging points,” said Mike Hawes, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. “Outright bans risk undermining the current market for new cars and our sector, which supports over 800,000 jobs across the U.K., so the industry instead wants a positive approach, which gives consumers incentives to purchase these cars.
“We could undermine the U.K.’s successful automotive sector if we don’t allow enough time for the industry to adjust.”
The government’s strategy includes a $332-million fund for local authorities to tackle air pollution problems.
They are being encouraged to come up with their own solutions, but the government paper said ideas include the introduction of charging zones in high-pollution areas, a cleaner fleet of public transport and the reprogramming of traffic lights to smooth the flow of traffic.
Ultimately, the government hopes that by 2050, all cars and vans on Britain’s roads will have zero emissions. An incentive-based diesel scrappage scheme has not been included among the proposals, something many environmental groups had wanted, but Gove said it was not off the table.
If local areas could “come up with scrappage schemes that are value for money and appropriately targeted, then we have no ideological objection to them,” he said on the BBC.
“I’m in favor of dealing with the problem in the most effective way possible.”
Boyle is a special correspondent.